Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Quiet Novels About Changing The World

This week I want to talk about a pair of short, independently published novels that deal with marriage, communities, and the process of change in conservative societies. It takes hard work and hope to begin to change the world, but the work is worth doing.

Those novels are M.C.A. Hogarth’s Healer’s Wedding, set in the “Pelted” space opera universe, the first book in a new duology; and Stephanie Burgis’s Thornbound, the second full novel in her “Harwood Spellbook” series, set in a country that resembles 19th-century England—but a 19th-century England ruled by a council of women where it is only socially acceptable for men, women’s helpmeets, to learn magic.

Healer’s Wedding takes place a year after the end of the Chatcaavan War, the events of which formed the backbone of Hogarth’s “Prince’s Game” series. Most of it sets itself on the Eldritch homeworld, where former therapist and current mindmage Jahir—recovered, at least almost as much as he ever will, from his trials during the war—is set to marry Sediryl, an Eldritch with powers unusual even among the most unusually powerful of their kind. Sediryl is also an agricultural scientist and set to be anointed as heir to the Eldritch Queen—on a world that needs agricultural science very badly, for the Eldritch homeworld hasn’t been able to produce enough food to meet its own needs in years. But the Eldritch are a conservative people, and the Queen’s decision to open their world to outsiders has aroused opposition—including from her previous choice of heir. Sediryl and Jahir both have to rise to new challenges, both political and personal. But at its heart, this is a gentle sort of book, a book about growth and compassion—gentle but ruthless about the kind of hard-headed incremental pragmatism that’s necessary to change the world.

Thornbound is a short novel—it feels only a little longer than a long novella—about Cassandra Harwood’s attempt to open a school for women who wish to learn magic. Cassandra herself was the first woman allowed to study in the Great Library at Trinivantium, but she lost her ability to do magic (at least, without killing herself in the process) when she overreached trying to prove herself. She has decided to teach, instead—but the whole weight of Angland’s political establishment has arrayed itself against her. Her school, just opened, is about to be inspected by a party of three women from the highest ranks of the government. One of them is a petty, manipulative, abusive sort who bears Cassandra a grudge.

When Cassandra discovers that someone has made a fae bargain in her school—a bargain steeped in malice—she begins to worry not just for the fate of her school, but for the safety of its residents. And when her husband goes missing, she can add an even more personal fear.

Her path to solving her problems (and building the kind of coalitions that will allow her school to survive) is complicated by her habit of going things alone. Cassandra has to work on communicating with people, rather than assuming she knows what they want better than they do; on listening to other people, and on accepting their help. If she can just do that, she might be able to come out ahead… and have a much better shot at being part of changing the world.

This is a quiet sort of story, on the whole. It’s as concerned with personal relationships as it is with magical exploits and great acts of daring. And it, too, is concerned with building relationships and doing the slow hard work of gradually making societies more open and more fair.

I enjoyed both of these novels very much, and I’m looking forward to what comes next from their respective authors.

What are you guys reading lately?

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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